By Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) – A fragile ceasefire was holding along Turkey’s border with Syria on Saturday, two days after President Tayyip Erdogan agreed the truce to allow Kurdish forces time to pull back from Ankara’s cross-border assault.
Erdogan agreed the truce during talks in Ankara on Thursday with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence on stemming a humanitarian crisis, which has put 200,000 civilians to flight in northeast Syria, and easing a security scare over thousands of Islamic State captives guarded by the Kurdish YPG militia targeted in Turkey’s assault.
Turkey’s defence ministry said on Saturday there had been 14 “provocative attacks” from Syria in the past 36 hours but said it was continuing to coordinate closely with the United States to allow the agreement to be implemented.
Reuters journalists at the border said bombardment heard near the Syrian border town of Ras al Ain on Friday morning had subsided. They saw just a few Turkish military vehicles crossing the frontier on Saturday morning.
The truce sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia pull out of a “safe zone” Turkey has vowed to create in territory extending more than 30 km (about 20 miles) deep into Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG, the SDF’s main Kurdish component, a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents operating in southeast Turkey.
Turkey’s defence ministry said Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had urged his U.S. counterpart Mark Esper in a telephone call late on Friday to ensure that YPG forces withdrew from the zone within the 120-hour period agreed under the truce.
Erdogan said on Friday the safe zone would run for some 440 km from west to east along the border, though the U.S. special envoy for Syria said the accord covered a smaller area where Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies were fighting.
Erdogan also said Turkey would set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria.
The surprise deal to suspend Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish-led forces in Syria hinged on Erdogan’s demand that Washington agree a time limit on any ceasefire, a senior Turkish official told Reuters on Friday.
The deal was aimed at easing a crisis triggered by President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision earlier this month to withdraw all 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria. That move was widely criticised in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.
Trump’s move also means the extent of Turkey’s ambitions in the region is likely to be determined by Russia and Iran, filling the vacuum created by the U.S. retreat.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, has already deployed his forces in territory formerly protected by Washington, invited by the Kurds. Erdogan, who has backed rebels fighting to oust Assad, has said Turkey has no problem with Syrian government forces deploying near the border.
On Saturday, Russia’s foreign ministry said a delegation of Russian officials had met Assad in Damascus on Friday and discussed with him the need to de-escalate the situation in northeast Syria.
Trump defended his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria as “strategically brilliant” and said the truce reached with Turkey on Thursday would save millions of lives. Trump later said he held a phone call with Erdogan, adding that the Turkish leader “very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work”.
Erdogan will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in Sochi to discuss further steps on the “safe zone”. The two leaders have forged close ties over defence and energy cooperation, as well as efforts to find a political solution in Syria, but Moscow has said the Turkish offensive was “unacceptable” and should be limited.
Turkey says the “safe zone” it plans to create will allow up to 2 million Syrian refugees – roughly half the number it is currently hosting – to settle in Syria, as well as push back the YPG militia from its border with Syria.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Editing by Gareth Jones)